Wheelchair Prejudice: The Social Ramifications of Wheelchair Assignment in Nursing Homes

Posted by Dr. El - January 25, 2011 - Resident care, Transitions in care - 11 Comments

I was a dork in high school.  Oh sure, some of the people who knew me best realized I wasn’t quite as dorky as I appeared on the outside, but to most of the kids in my class I was not a sought-after individual.

Residents in geri-recliners are the dorks of the nursing home.  For the uninitiated, geri-chairs are like chaise lounges on wheels.  They are often difficult to maneuver, take up extra room in the elevator (thus reducing the chance of being transported to activities), and make it virtually impossible for residents to go out on pass with their families to enjoy a meal at home or in a restaurant.  In addition, people tend to assume that residents in geri-recliners aren’t “with it.”

By contrast, those residents lucky enough to be able to use electric wheelchairs are like the captains of the sports teams, the shining stars.  Residents who can wheel themselves around are the jocks, people in regular chairs are the cool kids, those in high-backed chairs are in the band, and residents who need their feet elevated are in the math club.

People are given geri-recliners to reduce pain and prevent skin breakdown, as they’re easier on the body than other chairs.  There are good reasons for such chairs, but this post is a pitch for making these conveyances the chairs of last resort because of the effect they have on the social and psychological health of the residents confined to them.

If you know a method or product that allows residents to stay in other types of chairs with the same level of comfort as the geri-chair, or are aware of a geri-recliner that’s designed for maneuverability and user-friendliness, please add your thoughts in the Comments section.

11 comments

  • Sue Samek says:

    Dr. El,

    This made me laugh both times I read it!

    Psychological reasons aside, geri-recliners make it physically difficult for residents to interact as they are generally seated lower than a person in a wheelchair.

    Thankfully, maneuverability has vastly improved over the years, but the ones I have seen remain cumbersome and "uncool."

  • Dr. El says:

    Good point, Sue, about the height difference creating a communication challenge with those in regular wheelchairs. With children's strollers, some of them are designed to raise their riders to the height of the pushers, changing the dynamics of their interactions. I wonder if there are geri-chairs like that.

  • K. Tree says:

    At my facility, geri-chairs are considered a restraint and we alternate between a geri-chair and a regular wheelchair whenever possible. That said, we have a new resident with a geri-chair that's padded and upholstered in a flowered fabric that looks like a throne. It doesn't make it less cumbersome, but it is prettier than the average putty colored, vinyl upholstered contraption.

  • Dr. El says:

    I definitely plan to "pimp my ride," K. Tree, when it's my turn.

  • Anonymous says:

    The Evolution Chair seems like a good alternative

  • Dr. El says:

    Anonymous, I found the Evolution Chair, thanks. From the photo, it certainly looks like it has potential. Here's the link for those interested:
    Evolution Mobility Chair

  • Steve Gurney says:

    I think about how strollers and car seats have evolved so much and how a new parent is willing to take a second mortgage to get the newest and best stroller. Designs improve every year and nearly everything on these is ergonomic and is adjustable and they look so comfortable I would like to squeeze into one myself.

    In contrast wheelchairs, gerichairs, etc. have really not evolved too much in my recent memory. In addition, tell a resident or a family that they need to pay for it out of their pocket and they will look at you funny.

    We definitely have "cool" chairs on the market and the technology to make more – but medicaid and medicare probably wont pay for them and consumers don't see this as a priority either. If we can get private dollars into this market similar to strollers and car seats maybe things can begin to change.

    Great post!

  • Dr. El says:

    Thanks, Steve. I remember the first time I saw geri-chairs 15 years ago. I thought they looked like something from the 1970s, and I'm still looking at the same chairs today.

    As a resident, if I were going to spend my own money on a chair and I couldn't wheel myself around, I'd definitely want to invest in a power chair because that results in the greatest increase in independence and control. If I could wheel myself around, I'd want a nice-looking, smooth-riding chair with accessories like cup-holders and a bag to hold my stuff. I'd also like light-up wheels, just for the fun of it.

  • AccuNurse says:

    Ha, great analogy! Stinks to be the last one picked for dodgeball.

  • Kaye Swain - SandwichINK.com says:

    Very interesting information. I had never heard of this type of "prejudice" before. I have a friend my age who has been in a nursing home for years due to an injury. She has a traditional wheelchair rather than electric. I'll have to talk to her about this. And, as one who is actively involved in caring for the elderly parents in my family, I'm also going to bookmark this for future reference. Thank you.

  • Dr. El says:

    Glad you appreciated the humor in this post, AccuNurse.

    Kaye Swain, it would be interesting to hear a resident perspective on this subject, if your friend would like to share it with us and you'd care to comment again. By the way, in addition to bookmarking the site, readers can also subscribe to posts via email or a reader.

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